Many Catholic apologists make the argument that the Protestant reliance upon Scripture as the sole infallible rule of faith (sola Scriptura) is defective because it implies a previous reliance upon the authority of the Catholic Church as the “publisher” and Christ-delegated interpreter of Scripture.
From the moment I first encountered this argument, it seemed philosophically suspicious to me. The first question suggested to me by the argument is, “Why don’t we need another authority standing behind the Catholic Church to guaranteed its authority so that we can then trust its judgments about Scripture?” Which immediately suggests the further question, “Why don’t we need a fourth authority to guarantee the third authority that guarantees the authority of the Catholic Church which then guarantees the authority of Scripture?” And so forth. Thus, this Catholic argument has always seemed philosophically suspicious to me because it looked like an epistemological variation on the classical philosophical ontological argument that no infinite regress of causes can exist.
Aristotelian metaphysics (according to my limited understanding of it) holds that a real infinite regress of ontological causes cannot exist. The reasoning in Aristotle’s works gets pretty complicated, and I’m not going to try to summarize it except like this: human reason as an activity of the mind engaging the world is in a certain sense the search for causes, and an infinite regress ultimately results in no graspable cause since every postulated cause has a previous cause, ad infinitum. This would ultimately imply the destruction of human reason itself as a viable tool for understanding the world. Applying this ontological argument to epistemology, then, seems to me to yield the conclusion that an epistemological infinite regress would likewise result in no graspable cause of knowledge, and so in this way would destroy human reason itself as a viable tool for understanding the world.
Well, certain Catholics that I know claim that my whole argument about this subject is hokum, and that I not only don’t understand what Aristotle is saying but that I also am guilty of just blowing smoke in a kind of “studied ignorance” that really makes Aristotle say the exact opposite of what he actually says. They respond to my epistemological infinite regress argument in order to try to save their “You have to trust the Catholic Church’s infallible authority in order to be able to trust the authority of Scripture” argument. To me, not being an expert in Aristotelian metaphysics (I am much better with his ethics and politics), their response gets as complicated as Aristotle’s original text, but here is how I understand their claims:
The basic Aristotelian theory of knowledge holds that nothing exists in the intellect except it first impinges on the physical senses. There are no such thing as “innate ideas,” ideas that the human mind is born knowing and which it uses to interpret the world of experience. Rather, the human mind is a tabula rasa (blank slate), awaiting impressions from the senses so that the reason can then abstract the universal essences of particular singular things in the world of experience. The mind thus only “knows” universal essences, not particular singular things.
Now Holy Scripture is a book, and as such it contains and transmits ideas. Ideas are not things that impinge upon the physical senses, and so strictly speaking, the mind cannot “know” the things that Scripture teaches (knowing being a precise technical term). This being the case, what one does when one trusts in the authority of Scripture is simply belief. It is in no way knowledge. Beliefs can be wrong; knowledge, by definition, can never be wrong. One may certainly have a true belief (a belief that conforms to empirical reality) or a false belief (a belief that does not conform to empirical reality), but one can never have “true knowledge” or “false knowledge.” Those categories would be as absurd as “married bachelor” or “square circle,” because by definition knowledge simply is the mind’s conformity to empirical reality.
As a belief and not knowledge, then one’s trust in the authority of Scripture as God’s revelation could be wrong and it must be subjected to the test of knowledge coming to the mind via empirical sense data. Now living people and their direct activities do impact one’s senses continually, and from these sensory impacts real knowledge, not just possibly true belief, can arise. Furthermore, an “authority” is a source that knows, not a source that believes. If it did not know what it was talking about, then what it was talking about could possibly be false, and this would not do any good for someone wishing to trust in its judgments. For these reasons, this Catholic argument seems to be saying, only living people can properly be called “authorities.” A book, even a (purportedly) Divine Book such as Holy Scripture, cannot be an “authority” because it conveys no “knowledge,” but only “belief.”
Now, assuming that I’ve summarized this Catholic argument correctly, here’s where they claim the rubber meets the road for the Protestant. The Protestant, they assume, is nothing more than an isolated private individual person – an individual who eschews all objective connections to the external world by setting his own subjective mind up as its own self-contained, self-justifying source of information about and interpretation of the world. Because he is an isolated mind communing only with his own subjective impressions and eschewing all correcting factors outside of his own mind, he lacks what might be called “objective indicia” (criteria) for rooting his beliefs about God in the actual empirical world of human experience.
Consequently, the Protestant’s trust that the Holy Scriptures are God’s revelation and are thus fully authoritative for man’s religious life is a purely rootless and subjective belief. His trust is not knowledge in any sense of the word, for it is divorced from the only actual source of knowledge – extramental physical sensory experience, most particularly of living people external to himself who can function as said “objective indicia” for rooting his faith in reality. The Protestant is thus left in the unenviable position of being a rank fideist. Like the Mormon who reifies his subjective experience of the “burning in the bosom” as the ultimate test for the truth of his faith, or perhaps even like a Muslim who simply chooses to believe that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His Prophet, the Protestant simply unthinkingly clings to a book whose identity, contents, and proper interpretation he can never establish with certainty (i.e., the state of knowledge rather than mere subjective and possibly false belief). All he has – and indeed, all he can ever have – is his own opinion / belief about Scripture’s identity, contents, and interpretation. In short, all he has – and indeed, all he can ever have – is his own rootless and unverifiable “private judgment” about these things. And that, says the Catholic, is an absolutely unworthy foundation for something as high and holy as the Christian religion.
By contrast, this Catholic argument seems to continue, the Catholic individual does have objective indicia for rooting his faith in extramental and empirical reality. He has objective indicia in the real living persons who make up the Magisterium of the Church. These persons, because they are empirically living and empirically acting individuals can and do provide real knowledge that can and does connect the individual person’s (mere) trust in the veracity of Scripture to the extramental empirical world. The Catholic thus eschews “private judgment” and instead submits his own endless capacity for generating mere ungrounded belief to an extramental and empirically verifiable living entity that really and truly knows what it is talking about. This is the authority known as the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Thus, the individual Catholic is not “on his own” like the Protestant (allegedly) is; the individual Catholic can have his beliefs corrected by the Magisterium, and thus, at least in a kind of derivative sense, the individual Catholic can have real knowledge.
This is, at any rate, what I take my Catholic detractors to be saying. I’m not entirely sure I’ve represented the chain of their reasoning correctly. For one thing, I’m not sure if they are actually claiming that the Catholic Church has knowledge of God and His revelation, let alone that they as individual Catholics have a knowledge derivative in a sense from the Magisterium. I’m not clear about this because they go on to call themselves Thomists, and according to my limited understanding of Thomist epistemology, there cannot be in the same human mind knowledge of an object of faith. To have knowledge of something means that you cannot have faith concerning it, and vice versa. Objects of faith are not sensory, and since knowledge can only come through the senses, there cannot be knowledge about matters of faith. How then these Catholics would ultimately be in a better position than they say I as a Protestant am in, I am not sure.
At any rate, since they like to rail against me as someone who just blows smoke, I figure that by putting up what I hope presents itself as a serious attempt to understand their argument, some sort of progress in the dispute might eventually occur. I’ll wait a bit to see if any of them bite by weighing in on this post, and then perhaps I’ll say some more.